Book review – The yoke of slavery

2012-09-15 11:32

Andre Brink’s Philida travels back in time to tackle slavery, but slavery is still with us in many ways. Charles Cilliers talks to the author about Marikana, censorship and the pitfalls of power

André Brink’s latest offering, Philida, recreates, in often lyrical prose, what life might have been like in the Cape in the years leading up to slaves being freed in 1834.

And, Brink says, while the central theme of Philida, which was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, is slavery – as told through the somewhat imagined, somewhat researched, experiences of a slave girl once owned by ancestors in his own family – the concept of slavery, he is quick to point out, is not something that belongs to our past alone.

“People are beginning to discover how many forms of slavery exist,” he says.

“It’s not always the customary, the traditional. There are innumerable other forms, from the spiritual to the physical. What fascinates me, because it’s more and more relevant to our country today, are forms of mental slavery, of emotional slavery.”

While Philida, after untold indignities as a slave, becomes nominally “free”, to her this means, among other things, being allowed to wear a pair of shoes and deciding “this and that I shall do, this and that I shall not”. It may be she will return to the colony and do much of what she did before anyway, but this time thinking she chooses to do it.

But how does one really live a “free life”?

Basic freedom of choice is something still denied to many today, by situations of financial desperation and dependence, or by being in manipulative, abusive relationships, by being subjected to controlling groups, or innumerable other forms.

As Brink says: “One thing I would like people to think about is when the official, or historical, forms of slavery are abolished, we move into more and more insidious forms of slavery, such as between men and women, or the way in which certain forms of capitalism enslave workers.”

The comparison with Marikana and the modern struggles of South African miners is inevitable, and Brink agrees this comparison is justified.

The 77-year-old seems as prolific and imaginative as he’s ever been and, in this new book, returns to a world first explored in 1982’s A Chain of Voices, written at a time when his books were banned by the apartheid government.

He says: “It’s one of the most depressing experiences of recent years to find a censorious attitude once again being mounted in our society.

“We are moving towards that closing of the mind, which makes censorship possible or inevitable.

“I’m deeply worried about this and the increasing intolerance in some circles, which led to what we experienced with The Spear.

It’s sad that people just lack a sense of humour, even to smile wryly at themselves sometimes. Our president, I think, is the most notorious example of that.”

Of course, recently, some of Brink’s biggest critics are not those in government wishing to censor any of his work or his new-found criticism of them, but rather other Afrikaner-born writers.

Writers such as Rian Malan, who dismiss the book as “just an entertainment”, or others who criticised Brink for applying for and winning a grant for funding to write Philida when, according to many in the Afrikaans press, the grant should rather have gone to a formerly disadvantaged writer.

It’s perhaps a curious sight when the white liberals try to outdo one another in their liberalness, and Brink caricatures some of them, hilariously, in his novel – one as a noisy hermaphroditic hen who can’t lay any eggs of her own.

“It was not a competition for any particular race group,” he says. “They used money they got from two good friends of mine, Jan Rabie and Marjorie Wallace, who were always at the forefront of fighting against racial or any other form of injustice. So I thought this was something I could openly associate myself with.”

So will his next book glance away from the colony of two centuries ago and focus more keenly on a contemporary South Africa, as many of his earlier books were able to?

He agrees he probably will: “When you find yourself in the current situation, confronted by all possible challenges on a human rights level, you are driven to respond as much as you possibly can.

“Living through something as terrible as something like the apartheid years, one develops a particular intolerance towards intolerance in whatever form. If one has joined the struggle and tried to be part of it, and then to see how easily the very people who ushered in a new era of freedom in the country are falling into the pitfalls they seemed so deeply aware of just 20 years ago.

. . . Some of the best friends I made during the course of the struggle are themselves succumbing to the temptation of abusing power in new forms and showing less tolerance than before. I find that incomprehensible.

“To an extent,” he says, “I expected it to happen at some stage, but never so quickly, so drastically. And so stupidly.”

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